I recently returned from seeing my favorite band, Phish, for three nights in San Francisco. The city has many culinary gems, but there are good restaurants spread across the Bay Area. Two of the establishments I dined in over the course of the week truly stood out–in completely opposite ways–Swan Oyster Depot and Bottega.
SWAN OYSTER DEPOT
Swan Oyster Depot is a mecca of divey, old school, fresh seafood in San Francisco. Just about every oyster obsessed person I’ve met loves this place. I admitted many adventures ago that I’m not a huge fan of seafood, but when it comes to fresh seafood, I’m a little fearful. I wanted to challenge myself by eating here, because I couldn’t find one thing on the menu that would typically appeal to me. My friend Mike was kind enough to join me for the journey.
This place is notorious for long waits, as the “restaurant” is simply one long counter. We arrived just after 11:00 am on a Friday, waiting about thirty minutes for two seats at the counter. I immediately fell in love with the charm of the joint. The staff is comprised of men in their fifties and older–they’ve obviously been around a long time.
We immediately ordered a pair of Anchor Steam pints, which they served to us with a loaf of San Francisco’s finest sourdough bread. I can’t think of a better way to start a meal. We shared a platter of six Oysters, which were comprised of fresh Kumamoto, Miyagi and Wellfleet varieties. It was fun to shoot these, as each had its own funky texture. Each had the salty “from the sea” taste that you would expect too.
Mike ordered the uber traditional Smoked Trout with Shrimp Salad, where I chose what I considered to be the craziest item on the menu–Crab Fat! This was a cold, semi greasy, dipping sauce which contained little pieces of crab. We were both giggling at what we were eating, but it was so much fun to have this experience. Everyone should try this place once in their lifetime if they can.
Since we arrived two days before the concerts, my husband, Chris, came up with the excellent idea to rent a mini-van for our housemates. We would use the mini-van to drive to Napa Valley for lunch. The six of us took a fun driving tour through the Marin Headlands, eventually arriving to Yountsville, for lunch at Michael Chiarello’s highly acclaimed Italian restaurant Bottega. We hoped the restaurant would live up to its praise, but it ended up far exceeding our expectations. Ordering a slew of starters and pastas for sharing, we opted to skip main courses altogether–this was a perfect way to sample many different flavors.
- “Bacon & Egg” – Braised Pork Belly, Crispy Soft Cooked Egg, Four Bean Tuscan Salad, Preserved Meyer Lemon Marmellata, Lemon Verbena: The menu description for this starter was so appealing, we ended up ordering two for the table. The pork belly was some of the best I’ve ever had–melt in your mouth style–the crispy egg was fantastic too. I didn’t really understand the need for the salad though.
- Caramelized Wild Broccoli Rabe with Citrus Segments, Toasted Marcona Almonds, Proscuitto Bits, Aged Balsamic Dressing: What a nice way to kick off a meal. Pairing the bitter broccoli rabe with citrus elevated this dish. The almonds added a great crunch as well.
- Grilled Shortrib Meatballs with Sicilian Heirloom Tomato Sauce, Coal Roasted Eggplant Passata, Cucumber, Grapes and Housemade Ricotta: Another example of a dish that didn’t really need a salad, these meatballs were tremendous. They were extremely tender and fatty, but the heirloom tomato sauce added a perfect acidity to cut the fat of the short rib. A touch of housemade ricotta on each meatball added a luxurious, rich flavor.
- Burrata Caprese with Golden Bear Ranch Heirloom Tomatoes, Basil Leaves, Oil and Balsamic Caviar: I’m a huge burrata fan, so it was no big surprise that this plate of creamy mozzarella won me over. The heirloom tomatoes were by far, the best tomatoes I have ever eaten. They were so sweet. Perfection. Balsamic caviar was a really cool concept too, as these added a wonderful little crunch. Fresh basil brought the dish completely over the top.
- Red Wheat Tagliarini Bolognese with Veal, Pork, Porcini Mushroom Sugo, Rosemary, Parmigiano Reggiano: Our table unanimously agreed that this was the weakest of the pasta dishes we tried. Surprisingly, the sauce seemed a little dry.
- Black Garlic Spaghetti Grande with Head-On Prawns, Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, Cherry Tomatoes, Calabrian Chili, Citrus Essence and Bonito Flakes: These flavors were awesome. I loved the head-on prawns–they added a fun crunch to the dish. Pairing the Calabrian chili with citrus essence brought on a spicy zest as well.
- Potato Dough Raviolo filled with Spinach, Ricotta, Black Truffles, Farm Fresh Egg Yolk, Sage Browned Butter: Raviolo, the singular of the uber popular ravioli, gave us the most interesting looking pasta of the group. We didn’t want to cut into this gorgeous looking culinary treat, because it was so funky to gaze at. I found the raviolo to be a little too doughy for my taste, particularly around the outside, but the filling was delicious.
- Pan Roasted Potato Gnocchi with Summer Squash, Corn Fonduta, Tomato Confettura, Pepperoncini, Pecorino: I had such high hopes for this plate. The vegetables were fantastic, however, since the gnocchi were pan roasted, they tended to be a little dry.
- “Naked Pasta – Nettle Gnudi with Medium Rare Lamb Sugo, Spring Onion Salsa Verde and Shaved Pecorino: Who would’ve thought nettle gnudi would end up being the dark horse of our pastas? Our table loved this dish. The lamb was an amazing addition to the pillowy pasta puffs, but the salsa verde brought it all together. Well done!
- Black Pepper Bucatini alla Carbonara with Soft Cooked Hen Egg, Asparagus, Guanciale & Parmigiano Brodo: This was another dish we didn’t want to cut into, because it was so gorgeous looking. The bucatini won for my favorite pasta of the bunch, but Bottega knocked it out of the park with the carbonara. Sprinklings of cracked black pepper were fantastic. I am salivating just thinking about how delicious this was.
My favorite plates of the day were the Burrata Caprese and Black Pepper Bucatini Carbonara. Using only the freshest of ingredients, Michael Chiarello has done a tremendous job at providing a high class Italian dining experience in Napa. Pairing these dishes with local California wines, our housemates and I had what might be the best lunch I’ve ever had at Bottega. It was a great way for us to “share in the culinary groove” before we started our musical journey the next day. I would recommend this restaurant to everyone who visits the Bay Area.